It has been reported recently that Saracens, with the backing of seven other English clubs, have called for the Premiership salary cap to be abolished. Their argument is that it has served its purpose in creating a production line of English talent. However this line can quite easily stop as comparisons to the state of English football easily show…
The current salary cap of £5 million pounds is already being expanded to £5.5 million for next year as well as extending to two marquee signings outside that salary cap. The basic salary cap will be £5.1 million pounds. The other £400 000 will be made up of academy credits for players under 24 with a contract over £30 000 a year, who joined the club before the age of 18, to continue the promotion of home grown players. Already that is an enormous expansion that could prove to be a major change in the premiership, hence the need for incentives to maintain talent production. So why demand further change when we cannot even tell the consequences of already significant alterations?
The current expansion could prove to develop a gulf in class between the richer clubs and the less well off, seeing as a second marquee player will be paid for by the club owner, that means the likes of Saracens and Bath, two of the wealthiest clubs will have one up on the less off teams such as Wasps or newly promoted London Welsh. A second marquee signing allows teams to have another world class player, think another George North for example. The increase in the cap is a good way of being able to keep up to speed with France, without jeopardising the national team with an influx of international stars, but that is because the increase is significant but not drastic.
An increase in the salary cap is necessary to keep top players at clubs. Already Samu Manoa has been lured to wealthy Toulon. Yet, money is not the only incentive, several other British players lured to France are making a return home. Jonny Sexton is on his way back to Leinster from Racing Metro and Dan Lydiate has left the same club to return to Wales and the Ospreys. It seems money is not the biggest lure for players, when the Premiership is one of the most competitive leagues in the world players will naturally want to test themselves here.
If however that salary cap was to totally vanish the changes cannot be so easily controlled. Wealthy owners can snaffle any player they want and form teams of top internationals in a similar vein to Mourad Boudjellal at Toulon. Already there is talk of top internationals joining the Premiership after the 2015 world cup, such as Will Genia at Bath, while former Autralian captain James Horwill has been confirmed as signing for Harlequins after the competition. So why do these additions need to increase further?
A top class team shouldn’t be one that can be built by the contents of a wallet, but through a combination of astute buys and the development of academy players and those from lower tier clubs. The Harlequins team that won the Premiership in 2012 are a prime example. Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown are three of the team’s key players, all of whom rose through the academy, while Danny Care was a young signing from Leeds. Added to this was their star signing in Nick Evans from New Zealand, it was this combination of academy and young signings from teams in lower leagues bolstered by a few foreign stars that proved so successful for Harlequins.
The lack of salary cap will also inevitably prove detrimental to the growth of English talent. France is a clear example as Phillipe Saint-Andre has capped several foreign born players, who have qualified on residency grounds, such as Rory Kockett and Scott Spedding, both South African by birth. Saint-Andre has been forced into this through the rise of foreign stars in the Top 14, where teams are constructed by rich owners with the far larger £7.8 million (10 million euros) salary cap. The example of Gael Fickou is a startling one. He was once on the books at Toulon, who got rid of him because he could not get into their team of Galacticos, but he now plies his trade at Toulouse and is one of the brightest young stars in the Northern Hemisphere, who if not for Toulouse may not even be known.
Although there is the belief that without a salary cap English clubs will be more competitive in Europe that seems a weak argument. Harlequins and Northampton top 2 of the 5 pools in the European Champions Cup. Although French clubs top the other 3 English clubs lie in second in 2 other groups, with Bath and Saracens still vying for a place in the knockout stages. In fact such stiff competition is the best way for these mostly English teams to really challenge themselves. European rugby is the pinnacle of the club game in the Northern Hemisphere and it provides young England stars the exposure they need to develop their game. So far the majority of Sam Burgess’s union education has come from European rugby, and it has provided him with a steep learning curve. So why jeopardise this opportunity for potential English stars by simply replacing them with internationals who we know can cut it. George Ford and Anthony Watson of Bath are two young players finding their feet in international rugby and will have benefited hugely from European and club rugby, they could miss out on if they were warming the bench as understudies to internationals, when with experience they could themselves be world class in a few years.
In fact in the Challenge cup English teams have dominated for years, absolutely wiping the floor with their French counterparts. This in itself reveals the gulf in class in French club rugby between the teams challenging in the European cup and those struggling in the Challenge cup. This gulf in class could be the route English rugby takes without a salary cap too.
The abolition of the salary cap will provide huge commercial benefit to the Aviva Premiership as more fans will flood to see the influx of internationals play in their league, whether it turning up on match days or paying for TV subscriptions. However this could harm the English team, and the commercial benefit they produce, international rugby is still the pinnacle of the sport and it should always remain that way. The removal of the salary cap will not only threaten the competitiveness of the English team it will threaten the appeal of the Premiership where almost any team can beat anyone, which may not be the case if a wealthy owner builds a team out of his own pocket good enough to beat the best international sides.
At the moment the English game is in an excellent state, the national side has a pool of talent to make many teams envious, especially the French, while their league remains one of the most compellingly competitive in the world and they can still challenge clubs in Europe. Two of the best teams to watch in England at the moment are Exeter Chiefs and Bath. Both have taken totally different routes, but both are full of English talent. Exeter’s exciting team has excelled this season founded on a core of academy products and English players in Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Ewers, Thomas Waldrom, Sam Hill, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell. Likewise, Bath’s squad could field a backline that would do a great job for England itself, while their pack boasts international promise too in the likes of Rob Webber, Henry Thomas and Charlie Ewels. This Bath squad has been strung together through the acquisition of excellent young English talent, and arguably this squad won’t peak for another two years, but a quicker fix could have been to bring in tried and tested internationals, an alternative that a lack of salary cap would easily facilitate.
It seems quite clear that the English game is in an excellent position without the abolition of the salary cap, so why threaten the club and international game for what seems to be the commercial benefit of a broadcasting companies and the powers that be in the English game?
Would you like to see the abolition of the salary cap?